Small Kindnesses

Erika Petrelli
Erika Petrelli

What is the meaning of life?

Why are we here?

Why do bad things happen to good people?

What does it mean to be honorable?

How do we know what is “true”?

I don’t know the answers to any of life’s big questions, not a one of them.

Recent conversations with dear beloved friends, as well as the honoring of a undeniably remarkable man taken away too soon, as well as the fact that the calendar has turned to November—a month where we have an invitation to actively sit in gratitude, have all gotten me thinking about those kinds of questions again, though, and what it means to have a life “well lived.”

I share this Mary Oliver poem all the time.  It’s called “The Summer Day”:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

One of the most powerful I-will-remember-this-forever moments at the funeral I attended this past weekend was this: driving in the long procession of cars making our way to the cemetery, I saw a man and a woman who had stepped out of their house and were standing in their driveway, watching us go by. They were holding hands and the man had his hat off, holding it over his heart.

It was a small act of kindness and a breathtaking act of reverence.

Like Oliver, I don’t know exactly what a prayer is, but I know that it is a sacred connecting. And I know that I feel it in a thousand small kindnesses.

And while the big questions will forever baffle me, the question of small kindnesses is crystal clear.

In my one wild and precious life, that’s what I want. I want people that I meet to feel better after they leave me. Even if ever so slightly. A little lightened. A little comforted. A little loved. A little brightened. A little heard.  A little seen. Maybe a little more joyful. Perhaps a little warmer.

This is both a small order and the tallest order on earth.

But for me, it is the very makeup of a life well lived.  

What is a life well lived, for you? And what will you do with your "one wild and precious life”?


November is National Gratitude Month, a chance to think about, and share, the many things that you are grateful for in your life.

The benefits of this practice are truly limitless, and if we foster gratitude in ourselves we just may inspire others to do the same.  If you have the great honor to work with young people, November is a great month to invite them to consider gratitude. At The Leadership Program, we believe that leadership is built through self-reflection, and gratitude is born from reflection.

Try starting your next class with a simple "roses and thorns" type activity, where students have the chance to reflect on the best and worst parts of their day. Or end your next class with a simple "thankful and hopeful" activity, where students have the chance to reflect on one thing they are thankful for from the current day and one thing they are hopeful for for tomorrow.    


Erika Petrelli

By Erika Petrelli

Erika Petrelli is the Senior Vice President of Leadership Development (and self-declared Minister of Mischief) for The Leadership Program, a New York City-based organization. With a Masters degree in Secondary Education, Erika has been in the field of teaching and training for decades, and has been with The Leadership Program since 1999. There she has the opportunity to nurture the individual leadership spirit in both students and adults across the country, through training, coaching, keynotes, and writing. The legacy Erika strives daily to create is to be the runway upon which others take flight. If you enjoy these blogs, you should check out her interactive journal, On Wings & Whimsy: Finding the Extraordinary Within the Ordinary, now available for sale on Amazon. While her work takes her all around the country, Erika calls Indiana home.